Late last month, South Korean lawmaker An Min-suk of the ruling Democratic Party stood before the media in Seoul to explain a resolution proposed in the National Assembly.
Displayed on the podium before him were illustrations of two flags: Japan’s Rising Sun, which portrays a red sun with 16 rays extending outward, and the swastika flag of Nazi Germany. The two were linked with an equals sign placed between them, suggesting they are equivalent symbols of wartime militarism.
That view has been strongly rejected by conservative Japanese lawmakers and the Foreign Ministry.
An’s view, however, was shared by the vast majority of the 199 lawmakers who attended that day’s plenary session. In another dispute over history between Japan and South Korea, they passed the resolution calling for a ban on the use of the Rising Sun flag at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics in a 196-3 vote.
“A flag symbolizing war is not suitable for peaceful Olympic Games,” An was quoted by CNN as saying in September.
“The Rising Sun flag is akin to a symbol of the devil to Asians and Koreans, just like how the swastika is a symbol of Nazis which reminds Europeans of invasion and horror,” he reportedly said.
The Rising Sun, which was used as the official military flag by the now-defunct Imperial Japanese Army and Navy until the end of World War II, has become a source of contention between the two countries in recent years.
South Korean activists and lawmakers have claimed it is a symbol of Japan’s past militarism that conjures painful memories of Japan’s 1910-1945 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula. They want the flag banned from public places, in particular during the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
However, the Tokyo Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, headed by former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, announced it will not ban the flag, saying flags of similar designs have been widely used in Japan, and it won’t be recognized as a political propaganda tool.
The Foreign Ministry has created webpages in both English and Japanese, explaining that the design has been used in several scenes in daily life. It has also been the official flag of the Ground and Maritime Self-Defense Forces since 1954, and has been widely accepted by the international community, the ministry says.
“The design of the Rising Sun Flag is widely used throughout Japan, such as good catch flags used by fishermen, celebratory flags for childbirth and seasonal festivities, and flags of the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) vessels. Claims that the flag is an expression of political assertions or a symbol of militarism are absolutely false,” the website quotes Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga as saying on Sept. 26, 2013.
“It appears to me that this is a large misunderstanding,” Suga is quoted as saying.
The website, however, does not mention the fact that the flag was once used by the Imperial Japanese Army and Navy, and was recognized as a symbol of Japan’s wartime military presence overseas.
Japanese lawmakers and experts appear to be split over the issue. Some say the Rising Sun carries no political connotations in present-day Japan and the campaign in South Korea calling for banning use of the design has gone too far.
“(The resolution) is rather abnormal. The Diet, as the supreme organ of the state, should deal with this issue,” Seishiro Eto, chairman of the diplomatic affairs research panel of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, was quoted as saying in a local media report on Oct. 3.
“If we don’t take any action and just watch the situation, this would be regarded as acceptance,” Eto said.
Others say the flag was in fact once a powerful symbol of Japanese militarism, and its use should not be encouraged at an international sporting event.
“Is there any country where people wave the flag of a military force during a sporting event? Whether it is the United States, U.K. or Russia, you’d feel it strange if people are waving a military flag to root for their team,” tweeted Lower House member Akihiro Hatsushika of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, the largest opposition force.
Some also point out that the Rising Sun is often waved by xenophobic Japanese right-wingers at rallies and street marches.
“Today, people usually won’t use the flag in everyday life,” said Toshiya Ichinose, a professor of modern Japanese history at Saitama University. “People waving it today probably think of it as a symbol of a mighty Japan, but it is only natural that some people overseas recognize it as a symbol of xenophobia in Japan.”
Whatever opinion people might have of the Rising Sun, it appears South Korea’s displeasure became vocal only recently.
Reportedly, South Korean activists first began raising issues over the flag around 2012. South Korea’s president at the time, Lee Myung-bak, visited the disputed islets of Takeshima, which Japan claims are part of Shimane Prefecture. South Korea occupies the rocky outcroppings and calls them Dokdo. Lee’s visit provoked ire in Japan, which fed the rise in anti-Korean, internet-based right-wing activity.
Last Dec. 6, the Japanese edition of the Chosen Ilbo, one of the three major daily newspapers in South Korea, ran an article headlined: “Why at this late date is South Korean angry about the Rising Sun flag?”
In today’s South Korea, the Rising Sun is often referred to and criticized as a “war criminal flag.” However, after the Choson Ilbo culled its article database, it concluded that South Korean media outlets didn’t start using the term until around 2012.
In fact, the controversy is about more than the 2020 Olympics. It is a reflection of overall diplomatic tensions between the two countries in recent years.
In its 2011 annual report, the Japanese Public Security Intelligence Agency for the first time pointed out that anti-Korean, right-wing netizen groups are on the rise. Many such groups wave the Rising Sun during rallies and marches, as shown in photos carried in the agency’s 2010 and 2013 reports.
“In recent years there have been increased activities of right-wing-affiliated groups that express right-wing views and engage in insistent protests while calling for participation through the internet and taking the form of mass movements, such as gatherings and demonstration marches,” the 2011 report states.
“Some of the groups that demand the deportation of Koreans in Japan were arrested for repeated slander and defamation using discriminatory language,” it says.
Meanwhile, Seoul asked last year that the MSDF not display the Rising Sun during an international naval review that South Korea would be hosting.
Japanese officials and the MSDF were furious, as every country’s naval force is entitled to fly its own military flag under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, and hoisting the Rising Sun has caused little outcry since the MSDF’s inception in 1954. The MSDF eventually canceled its plan to send ships to the event.
The issue has not cropped up as a bone of contention with other countries.
In a military context, no other nation save South Korea has made an issue out of the flag. MSDF vessels flying the Rising Sun have conducted joint naval exercises with democratic allies like the United States, India and Australia, and has made port calls in China, the Philippines and Russia.
Things are different in the world of soccer, as the sport continues its fight against hate speech worldwide. In April 2017, the Asian Football Confederation punished the J. League soccer team Kawasaki Frontale after fans of the club raised the Rising Sun during a midweek Asian Champions League match in South Korea.
Kawasaki Frontale contended that in Japan, hoisting the flag “conveys no political or discriminatory messages,” but the AFC dismissed this argument, concluding that use of the flag constituted a discriminatory offense against South Korea and violated an AFC rule.
According to Kyodo News, Frontale supporters waved the flag after Kawasaki’s 1-0 win over the Suwon Bluewing and nearly provoked a post-game riot.
The AFC slapped a fine of $15,000 on Kawasaki Frontale and had the team play a no-audience home game.
According to Ichinose of Saitama University, before the end of World War II the Rising Sun was considered “extremely sacred” among Imperial Army personnel as it was directly bestowed by the emperor when a regiment was formed.
For the old Imperial Navy, it was a symbol of Japan’s military presence overseas. It was also often seen as a symbol of wartime Japanese occupation, Ichinose said.
“I won’t say it’s desirable to ban use of the flag, but considering its historical background and how people use it today, you should think carefully about the implications of waving it around during a sports event,” he said.